• People Love Dead Jews by Dara Horn **** (of 4)

    In a series of essays, no not essays, but rather really well-done rants, Dara Horn made me pause and reconsider a lot of what I have accepted about Jews that have died. She opens with Anne Frank, probably the most famous dead Jew, and Frank’s long lasting message. Something to the effect of, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.” Seriously?

    Is Anne Frank revered because she offers absolution to non-Jews who participated in or stood-by as the the steamroller of the Holocaust desecrated millions? Would Anne Frank have become an icon if she instead of dying, she had survived the war, published her diary, but gone on to be an aging, embittered housewife living on Long Island. People love dead Jews.

    Or consider the book’s longest chapter about a righteous gentile doing his best to save Europe’s most famous artists from Nazi decimation. He was supported by others hoping to save the best of western civilization. At first, laudable, but Dara Horn asks, what about the less famous, the less artistic, the apparently less intellectual, and more religiously Jewish. Were their lives worth less?

    Horn’s willingness to dig deeply into Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is a masterpiece of literary and historical analysis. Defenders of one of Shakespeare’s most oft-produced plays is that his portrayal of Shylock is not anti-Semitic because of a single speech.

    But as Horn unpacks the rest of the play and its historical antecedents she makes a compelling case that Shakespeare was trumpeting the anti-Semitism of his day. During the middle centuries surrounding its writing Jews had been expelled from England, derided in virulent anti-Semitic sentiment across England and Europe, confined to Venetian ghettoes and the enforced business of usury. Shakespeare knew all that. Today’s critics are whitewashing a play whose very caricature of a blood thirsty money-lender (“I demand my pound of flesh,” cries Shylock) is a continuation of centuries old tropes about the conjured belief that Jews killed Christian babies to extract blood for Jewish bread. Excusing Shakespeare, says Horn, is to overlook the basis upon which Jews have been slaughtered for centuries.

  • What it is Like to go to War ***(of 4)

    There are not a lot of books about the philosophy of war, but there should be, especially as we are a country that in the last couple of decades has sent our troops to Iraq (twice), Afghanistan (for the longest war in U.S. history), Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Uganda, Syria, and Niger. The goal of war, this book makes perfectly clear, is to kill people. Karl Marlantes asks a simple question. What happens when we send our youth — young people whose full sense of judgement and character has not yet reached maturity — to contravene the fundamental tenets of society.

    Raised with the legal, moral, and religious tradition that Thou Shalt Not Kill, we nonetheless ask 18-year olds to kill other human beings. Often the requirement comes in a situation where opposing youth are being asked to do the same to them. Increasingly, however, the use of so-called smart weapons means a gunner or drone pilot could be 100s or 1000s of miles away. Still, their job is to kill, and to know that no weapon is smart enough to always distinguish between an enemy combatant and innocent bystander.

    Karl Marlantes descriptions of battles he engaged in while in Vietnam are surreally alive and frighteningly tangible. Interspersed with battle scenes are Marlantes’ discussions of what it feels like to kill another person, to be involved in a life and death situation, and to try to reintegrate into society afterward. Marlantes calls upon literature from the Illiad and Baghavad Gita forward. He investigates psychology and spirituality. He talks about PTSD and pain and love and recovery.

    Unfortunately, he, like many military professionals is still processing the last war, rather than thinking fully about the next one. Hand to hand combat and trench warfare, though they are at play again in Ukraine, have been displaced by drone and satellite driven technology. Killers take lunch breaks and go home to their spouses at 5 PM. Their spouses, unlike in Vietnam, are often husbands. Today’s volunteer Army is comprised of individuals whose motivations and backgrounds may well be different than those drafted in the 1960s. His book needs to be updated to match the trials of more modern warfare, but his principles remain very much in need of discussion.

  • Ducks by Kate Beaton *** (of 4)

    Newly graduated from college with artistic talent, a liberal arts degree, and a mountain of college loans, 21-year-old Kate Beaton departs her economically depressed home in the Canadian maritimes in search of work and income to pay down her debts. Like many other Canadians, she emigrates to the land of big salaries, the oil sands of Alberta.

    Ducks is a coming of age story endured by many college graduates who combine wanderlust, a can-do attitude, and the immortality of being young. Not unsurprisingly she faces isolation, loneliness, and the exhaustion of trying to adapt while working as hard as she can in a new land far from home.

    But Kate is also immersed in a sea of roughnecked men in a frozen, dark wasteland bearing little semblance to a balanced society. The level of sexual aggressiveness and mistreatment directed at the few female employees is appallingly high and carefully rendered in cartoon characterizations, generally six panels per page for more than 400 pages. While the book’s title might refer to a band of migratory ducks poisoned in a waste-tailings pond, it probably also refers to the author’s position as a “sitting duck” hunted by predatory miners far from their own families, hope, or the restrictions of normal civilization.

    Separating men from women, implies the author, in mining camps, college dormitories, the army, or by religious restriction is likely to lead to sexual degradation of women, LGBTQ+, and anyone with perceived or conceived weakness.

  • We Didn’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole **** (of 4)

    The book’s subtitle is accurate: A Personal History of Modern Ireland. This history of Ireland begins in 1958, more or less, when O’Toole was born. In the 1950s, Ireland was an Old World agrarian country: nearly three-fourths of the population worked farms. Families were enormous, schooling was negligible, the government corrupt, and the Catholic church set values, standards, mores, and rules. Economic gain was achieved, as it had been for centuries, by emigration.

    This is the story of how in just fifty years Ireland not only joined the world of modern, high-tech, gig-economy nations, but also passed some of the most anti-Catholic, pro-Abortion, pro-LGBTQ+ laws in the world. It is hard to think of another country in the world that has undergone such a transformation in so short a period while maintaining relative stability. Or done so without a revolution.

    O’Toole’s thesis is that there were, and always have been, two Irelands. On the one hand the structure of church monitored, inviolate rules on marriage, divorce, sex, sexuality, and devotion. Yet, on the other, the church itself violated nearly every one of its own rules by disappearing children born out of wedlock or into inescapable poverty into severely abusive private institutions. They beat children in regular schools. They incarcerated mothers with unwanted pregnancies. They sexually assaulted children for decades.

    Concurrently, Irish people swore allegiance to the Church, while living authentic lives reflecting the full gamut of human desires: they were sexually active, they loved people of the same sex, they sent their daughters to England for abortions, and they invented work arounds for birth control.

    The country changed in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s as government corruption and clerical abuses became too large to ignore. In essence the private lives of Irish people became public at the same time that the private abuses of church and state were finally acknowledged.

    The lessons for me is the ability to be hypocritical or to hide the truth from our eyes while it stands in plain sight is not a uniquely Irish trait. We Americans also maintain principles based upon mythology: we are supposed to be a country of equal opportunity where hard work and strong family values are all one needs to get ahead. And yet the lived experience of many Americans is riven by uncrossable class divides and deeply entrenched racism, all plainly visible if we choose to look.

    The good news is that if Ireland can make a leap into the first world of commerce and culture in just two generations — and hang onto much of its core culture — is it possible that other countries in Africa or Asia might do the same?

  • Ultra by Rachel Maddow **** (of 4)

    Not a book or, at least, not yet a book, but a podcast.

    The genius of the production is that it is ostensibly a recounting of the hidden history of American duplicity and sedition during WW II, during which members of Congress in collusion with right-wing nationalists tried to abrogate American democracy, overthrow the Constitution, and install a fascist President.

    Armed insurrectionists, whipped up by pro-Nazi, virulently anti-Semitic, extremely popular media hucksters attacked Congress, American industries, and Jews.

    An American munitions plant blown up by Americans who supported the Nazis in WW II.

    Congressmen used their political privilege to distribute Nazi propaganda (while being paid by the Nazis to do so) to tens of thousands of their constituents.

    Do those look like ordinary Congressional waves to the crowd to you?

    Every episode of this podcast is a masterpiece of storytelling and revelation of a chapter in America’s past most of us were unaware of. The value of the U.S. Justice Department’s ability to withstand overwhelming political pressure becomes paramount (powerful Senators forced the Justice Department to end its investigations of the events outlined in Ultra). The actions of journalists and ordinary citizens committed to protecting democracy cannot be overstated.

    The consequences of right-wing politicians willing to condone insurrectionists, remain silent, or lie following acts of violence against Jews, Blacks, and law enforcement officials instigated by their rhetoric is horrifying. The direct line from what was then called America First to today’s MAGA is self-evident.

    I challenge you to listen to the first episode, and resist listening to the next one.

  • The Last Slave Ship by Ben Raines *** (of 4)

    On the face of it, the story of 100 enslaved Africans smuggled into Mobile, Alabama does not feel that significant among the 12.5 million Africans shipped to the New World (10.7 million survived the Middle Passage.) Aside: I am only now figuring out that more than 90% of the people kidnapped, chained below decks, and, if they survived, sold, went into the Caribbean and South America. America’s four million enslaved people were mostly bred (breeding is a term used by slavers) by their owners here.

    The Clotilda was the last ship carrying human cargo to arrive in the United States, running past naval patrol ships into Mobile Bay in 1860. After the south lost the Civil War, many of those transported by the Clotilda settled in Africa Town just outside Mobile. They lived long enough to be interviewed and photographed. They provided firsthand accounts of their lost African families, details of their capture by Dahomian warriors, the life-threatening Middle Passage, and sale to other humans to do animal-like labor. They also recall African customs that persisted inside Africa Town.

    The author, Ben Raines, describes the Clotilda from the days of its inception as a ship bound for Africa in contravention of American law, its scuttling after disgorging its human cargo into the swamps of Alabama, until its rediscovery 2019. The ship’s story brackets the story of its enslaved Africans and their offspring.

    A century of racism haunts Africa Town and its descendents to this day. And yet, The Last Slave Ship grows stronger until its finish, describing a sordid history that somehow still points a way toward recognition and finally, forgiveness.

    Africa Town today. The commerce is gone now, and you see boarded up homes and vacant lots in the neighborhood. Link to NPR story.

  • How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith *** (of 4)

    Clint Smith educates white Americans who likely never learned the true extent and depth of slavery in the foundation and enduring legacy of the country. He does so, however, with poetic passages rather than a two-by-four across the side of your head. He applies the same gentle approach as he makes clear that never in America’s history – today included – has a Black person ever felt complete freedom. Skin color defines every interaction on the street, in a store, at a bank, during an interview, or in front of a jury. Consider for even sixty seconds, the strain that must induce.

    Using the same understated approach, while visiting seven important landmarks in the history of enslavement, Smith establishes that there never was, nor could have been, such a thing as acceptable or benevolent enslavement of other human beings, despite numerous enduring attempts to suggest otherwise. If enslavement as it was practiced in America cannot be justified by any rational or compassionate human, how, asks Smith can any veneration of The Lost Cause, Confederate Soldiers (and their reenactors), so-called defense of state’s rights, or idolization of Confederate leaders be tolerated? Wasn’t every Confederate, in essence, a subversive fighting to overthrow the rule of law. Wasn’t the Civil War fundamentally an armed insurrection in defense of the right to hold other human beings in conditions to which they could be flogged, starved, detached from their families, or worked to death?

    At his best, Smith interviews white tour guides at Monticello (working to teach anti-Racist history) and white Daughters and Sons of the Confederacy and does so without malice or confrontation, an act of noble restraint. He reminds each person he speaks with, however, what it has meant to him to grow up in a country that has never taught him, or itself, about its true history.

  • Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe ** (of 4)

    Keefe is the author of a couple of other books I thought were terrific (Empire of Pain, Say Nothing), but not this one. A staff writer for the New Yorker, Rogues is a collection of his previously published, long form essays bound together. Chapter after chapter we meet bad guys – white-collar crooks, narcos, fraudsters, arms merchants, and so on. Taken alone, each malcontent is pretty interesting, but Keefe starts each story letting you know at the outset what terrible deeds have been perpetrated. That doesn’t leave a lot of mystery while you plow through scores of pages to learn more, and more, about the same detail you were made aware of in the opening paragraphs. By the time you’ve read five or six of these stories, each one of which running out of steam about three-fourths through, you might wonder to yourself how many more bad guys you need to need to meet at one time.

  • River of the Gods by Candace Millard **** (of 4)

    By the 1860s California had absorbed an influx of hundreds of thousands of gold miners, the southern states of the U.S. had seceded, and North America’s native populations were mostly subdued, and yet in those years the only parts of the African continent known to western Europeans was its long perimeter. Ninety percent of Africa’s interior was unreliably mapped by whites. River of the Gods describes British expeditions to locate the source of the Nile River.

    An expedition into Africa’s interior required a combination of hubris, fearlessness, undaunted courage, and an unquestioning belief in racial superiority that is mortifying to behold. Without ever becoming overbearing, Millard’s description of the men, British and African, who risked their lives in search of the Nile’s origins, pits innate curiosity and urge for exploration — who doesn’t want to know the headwaters of the world’s longest river? — against the sheer audacity of believing that exploration can only be achieved by khaki-clad Britishers in charge of scores of largely nameless local guides, porters, and pack animals. Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke hiked for months at a time, enduring, no exaggeration, more than 20 diseases and fevers which left them periodically blind, paralyzed, unable to speak or swallow, and crazed for weeks and months on end. Yet they marched forward, sometimes born on litters, often to the complete detriment of their physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

    Richard Burton (left) and John Speke in an engraving by Emile-Antoine Bayard (1837-1891). Credit.

    River of the Gods is part adventure tale, part biography of key explorers, and a rendering of an age of recognition, that colonialism, though not yet finished, was nearing its climax. Africa’s interior was about to be overrun by European countries whose competition with one another would expand from the purchase of bonded human chattel to the exploitation of timber, minerals, and colonial boundaries. It is a marvelous book that can cover the intricacies of Richard Burton’s courtship with his wife, the swarming insects of Africa’s jungles, and the international race for hegemony.

  • To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron *** (of 4)

    Mount Kailash in Tibet is a mountain revered and sanctified by Hindus and Muslims. Walking around its base cleanses the soul and brings respect and understanding to our dead ancestors. The mountain is reached from Nepal into Tibet, but is now monitored by China, intent upon Sino-fying the ancient kingdom of Tibet. Colin Thubron is one of Great Britain’s preeminent travel writers, barely a hare’s breadth away from nineteenth century British explorers, bedecked in pith helmets and khaki shorts, who preceded him.

    Thubron, already in his 70s, made his own pilgrimage immediately following the death of his mother, his last remaining relative and does so bathed in introspection. He pays exquisite attention to details noting interesting stones along a path made nearly entirely of stones. He shows us prayer flags worth looking at, discarded flashlights, exhausted acolytes crawling their way toward Nirvana, icy torrents, and armed Chinese soldiers anxiously hunting for protestors. He takes notes by the light of yak-butter lanterns and provides enough religious, spiritual, and political history to inform without overwhelming. He hikes to 18,000 feet in elevation meditating on his mother, who, like him, at the end, was gasping for oxygen, and his long-lost sister buried by an avalanche at the age of 21. Thubron’s adjectives cut like razors to the heart of every description. His account on life, death, and walking should be taken one step at a time, with concentration.